Best Movies of 2011

Here’s my list of the best films of 2011: 1)  Incendies, 2) Take Shelter, 3) The Artist, 4) The Descendants, 5) Poetry, 6) Midnight in Paris, 7) Beginners, 8 ) Source Code, 9) Young Adult, and 10) (tie) Hugo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Drive.

Continuing with my list of 2011’s best films, here are my honorable mentions: The Guard,  Project Nim, Buck, Tabloid, The Adjustment Bureau, Carancho, and Potiche.

 

The searing drama Incendies is the year’s best film.  Upon their mother’s death, a young man and woman learn for the first time of their father and their brother and journey from Quebec to the Middle East to uncover family secrets.  As they bumble around Lebanon, we see the mother’s experience in flashbacks.  We learn before they do that their lives were created – literally – by the violence of the Lebanese civil war.

Because the film is anything but stagey, you can’t tell that Canadian director Denis Villaneuve adapted the screenplay from a play.  Lubna Azabal, a Belgian actress of Moroccan and Spanish heritage, is brilliant as the mother.

It’s a tough film to watch, with graphic violence against women and  children.  But the violence is neither gratuitous nor exploitative – it is a civil war, after all, and the theme of the film is the cycle of retribution.

Incendies was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, but lost out to a much inferior film on the same subject of violence, In a Better Life.

 

Take Shelter:  Michael Shannon (Shotgun Stories, Agent Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire) is perhaps our best creep actor.   And what’s creepier than watching a solid parent and spouse enduring a full-fledged psychotic breakdown?

Shannon plays the most grounded guy in America until he starts having terrifying dreams and then hallucinations.  One of his parents is mentally ill, and he is determined to resist a breakdown and protect his family.  Unlike in a lesser screenplay, Shannon’s protagonist is very aware that he may be going crazy and is digging his fingernails into sanity.

Shannon gave a breakthrough performance in Shotgun Stories, by writer/director Jeff Nichols.  (In the excellent Shotgun Stories, Nichols created a dysfunctional family with a father so dismissive of his offspring that he non-named them Son, Kid and Boy.)  This time, Nichols has given Shannon the role of a lifetime, for which Shannon should get a dark horse Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

You may have noticed that this is Jessica Chastain’s year (The Debt, The Tree of Life, The Help, Texas Killing Fields), and Chastain should receive an Oscar nod for her supporting performance as Shannon’s wife.  Chastain must react to her husband’s behavior, which starts out quirky, becomes troublesome and spirals down to GET ME OUT OF HERE.

 

The Artist is a magical romance that writer-director Michel Hazanavicius gives us through the highly original choice of an almost silent film.  Set in Hollywood from 1927 through 1929, it is the story of a silent film star who is left behind by the startlingly immediate transition to talking pictures.

The French actor Jean Dujardin won Cannes’ best actor award as the silent star, a charismatic and ever-playful guy whose career is trapped by the shackles of his own vanity.  While on top, he treats an ambitious movie extra (Berenice Bejo) with kindness; she remembers when she becomes a star of the talkies.

Dujardin’s star, whose films resemble those of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.,  is a joker with a knack for the grand gesture.  He also has an adorable Jack Russell terrier that serves as his companion and co-star.  John Goodman and James Cromwell are excellent in supporting roles.

Hazanavicius is so skillful that audiences that have never seen a silent film soon become enraptured by the story and invested in the fates of the characters.  It’s a visually and emotionally satisfying film.

 

The Descendants:  In director Alexander Payne’s first film since Sideways, George Clooney seeks to care for his daughters in Hawaii after his wife is hospitalized, but then learns that she has been cheating on him.  That news sends him on a quest that he defines along the way.  To complicate things, his daughters are cooperative to various degrees.  The heat is turned up even higher by a potential land deal that could make Clooney and his many entitled slacker cousins wildly rich, but the deal’s deadline looms and he is pressured by his VERY interested relations.

The situation is promising enough, but Payne takes the story in unanticipated directions.   And, as you would expect from Sideways, there are many funny moments in The Descendants.

Clooney’s performance is brilliant.  Here, he does not play The Coolest Man on the Planet.  Instead, Clooney is a grinding workaholic who is so clueless about his kids that he doesn’t realize how clueless he is.  He is stunned by news of the affair that he never suspected.  Perhaps for the first time in his life, he must work through his situation figuring it out as he goes along.

Shailene Woodley’s performance as the older daughter is even more essential to the success of The Descendants. It’s not just that she perfectly plays a bratty teenager, but that we can see that some of her brattiness is hormonal and some of it is entirely voluntary and manipulative. Woodley had to convincingly play a character who is at times self-centered and shallow, but who can rally and reach within herself to serve as the family glue and support her dad and little sister.

The Descendants approaches being a perfect movie but for two things: 1) the daughter’s stoner boyfriend is just too oblivious to be credible among the other colorful yet completely authentic characters; and 2)  the audience can never believe that there’s any chance that George Clooney is going to allow bulldozers on thousands of pristine Hawaiian acres.  Still, almost perfect is pretty good.

 

Poetry: Early in his film, Korean writer-director Chang-dong Lee tells us his theme.  Holding an apple, the teacher tells his students that, to write poetry, you must first see, really see the world around you.  Mija is a 66-year-old pensioner in his class who works part-time as a caregiver for a stroke victim and is raising her sullen slob of a teenage grandson. She struggles with the poetry, but she does begin to see the people in her world with clarity – and it’s not a pretty picture.  What she learns to see is human behavior ranging from the venal to the inhumane.

The key to the film’s success is the performance of Jeong-hie Yun as Mija, a protagonist who spends the entire movie observing. Her doctor tells her that her failing memory is the start of something far worse.  Sometimes she doesn’t see what we see because she is distracted.  But sometimes she doesn’t act like she sees because of denial or avoidance.  Sometimes she is disoriented.  But she has moments of piercing lucidity, and those moments are unsparing.

This unhurried film is troubling, uncomfortable and very, very good.

 

With Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen has made his best movie since 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters.  It’s a funny and wistful exploration of the nostalgia for living in another time and place – all set in the most sumptuously photographed contemporary Paris.

Successful but disenchanted screenwriter and would be novelist Owen Wilson accompanies his mismatched fiancée Rachel McAdams to Paris, where he fantasizes about living in the artistically fertile Paris of the 1920s.  Indeed, at midnight, he happens upon a portal to that era, and finds himself hanging out with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein.  He meets Marion Cotillard, a 1920s gal who is herself nostalgic for the 1890s.

Midnight in Paris shines because of the perfectly crafted dialogue.  McAdams’ every instinct is cringingly wrong for Wilson.  She is enraptured by the pretentious blowhard Michael Sheen, who couldn’t be more insufferable.

As usual, Allen has attracted an excellent cast.  Owen Wilson rises to the material and gives one of his best performances.  Corey Stoll is hilarious as Hemingway and Adrien Brody even funnier as Salvador Dali.  Cotillard is luminous.

 

 

Beginners:  Ewan McGregor’s dad (Christopher Plummer) has just died, shortly after coming out of the closet.  As if this weren’t enough to deal with, McGregor is a depressive anyway, with a rich history of sabotaging his relationships.  But then he meets Melanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) (and they meet cute).

This is a winning comedy – one of the year’s best movies.  It’s smart, sweet and original.  All of the performances are excellent, especially Plummer’s, which should garner him an Oscar nomination.  All in all, Beginners is a notable achievement by director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker).

 

Source Code is a gripping thriller, and I admired both its intelligence and its heart.  The key is a breakthrough screenplay by Ben Ripley.  The scifi premise is that supersoldier Jake Gyllenhaal can inhabit the brain of a terrorism victim for the same 8 minutes – over and over again.  Each time, he has 8 minutes to seek more clues. Can he build the clues into a solution and prevent the terrorist atrocity?  Gyllenhaal is excellent.  So is Vera Farmiga as his handler and Michelle Monaghan as a girl you could fall in love with in 8 minutes.  Jeffrey Wright chews the scenery with his homage to Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove.  Director Duncan Jones solidly brings Ripley’s screenplay home.

 

 

With Young Adult, screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) are challenging the current mode of comedy itself.  They turn many comic conventions on their heads in this nastily dark comedy.

Played by Charlize Theron, the main character is stunningly non-empathetic,  utterly self-absorbed and thoroughly unpleasant.  She was the prom goddess in her small town high school, and has moved to the city for a job with a hint of prestige.  With a failed marriage, a looming career crisis and no friends, she’s drinking too much and is in a bad place.  So she decides to return to her hometown and get her old boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) back – despite the fact that he’s gloriously contented with his wife and newborn infant.

Naturally, social disasters ensue.  Along the way, the story probes the issues of happiness and self-appraisal.

Patton Oswalt is wonderful as someone the protagonist regarded as a lower form of life in high school, but who becomes her only companion and truth teller.

Young Adult is inventive and very funny.  Its cynicism reminds me of a Ben Hecht or Billy Wilder screenplay (high praise).  Note:  This is NOT a film for someone expecting a light comedy.

 

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is both a delight and a lessons in the possibilities of 3D in the hands of a master filmmaker.  The story follows a young orphan living in the bowels of a 1920s Paris train station who strives to survive by his wits, keep his independence and solve the puzzle of an discarded automaton.

Scorsese’s use of 3D is revelatory.  We feel entirely transported to WITHIN the worlds of the station, of its industrial inner workings and Paris itself.  When the orphan walks into a bookstore, we are immersed ourselves in the many stacks of books.  Scorsese’s 3D always works to advance the story, not to distract us with assaultive gimmicks.

As an extra treat for movie lovers, the very story becomes one of movie making, film as art and film preservation.  We see the early movie magic of George Melies, especially his 1902 A Trip the Moon. We also see Lumiere’s 1896 The Arrival of a Train, and the main characters even sneak into Harold Lloyd’s 1923 Safety Last.

Sacha Baron Cohen is very, very funny as the boy’s foil, the bitter and preening station policeman.  The cast is very good, with the most pleasing turns by Emily Mortimer, Helen McCrory and Richard Griffiths.

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo tells the first part of journalist-turned-novelist Stieg Larsson’s Milenium trilogy.  The stories are centered on Larsson’s muckraker alter ego Mikael Blomkvist and the damaged and driven Goth hacker Lisbeth Salander.  Lisbeth is only 90 pounds, so she will lose a fistfight with a man; but she prevails with her smarts, resourcefulness and machine-like  relentlessness.  Lisbeth is always mad AND always gets even.

In top rate performances, Daniel Craig plays Blomkvist and Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth. Lisbeth is the key to the movie, and Mara comes through with a compelling portrayal – stone faced until she explodes into a cyclone of wrath.  The other characters are played superbly by Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright and Stephen Berkoff.

Fincher is still operating at his best.   Remember – The Social Network is essentially about some annoying, immature geeks writing computer code and getting financing for a company – but Fincher made it rock!  Fight Club‘s desperate violence and Zodiac‘s whodunit relentlessness translated directly to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. So there couldn’t be a better director for this project than Fincher.  I’m looking forward to his versions of the next two chapters in the saga.

Fincher shot the film in Sweden and had made the country look and feel unrelentingly frigid.

The score by Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor is award worthy and is a major contribution to the story.

 

Drive is a movie that you haven’t seen before – a stylishly violent noir tale unfolding on a brilliantly filmed canvas.

Ryan Gosling stars as a stunt driver by day, criminal getaway driver by night.  He hardly talks and doesn’t emote.  Indeed, his character is listed in the credits as “Driver” and sometimes referred to in the dialogue as “The Kid”.  He is motivated only by his pursuit of adrenaline rushes and the opportunity to do something good for a vulnerable mom (Carey Mulligan).  Indeed, Gosling is superb.

But the real star of Drive is its Danish writer-director,  Nicolas Winding Refn.  The film has a noir plot but Refn eschews the shadowy black and white of traditional noir for especially vivid scenes of Los Angeles.  For example, early in the film, Gosling enters a convenience store and the screen is filled with the garish colors of junk food packaging.  It’s one of the most artfully lit and photographed scenes in the last year.

Drive abounds in nice touches. While being hunted by the cops, Gosling’s driver is listening to both the police scanner and a radio broadcast of the Lakers game; unexpectedly, it turns out that there is an essential reason that he’s listening to the Lakers.

This movie contains some extreme violence – violence that is intentionally extreme for its effect.  The cast is excellent, with especially memorable turns by Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Oscar Isaac.

 

 

The Guard:  This Irish dark comedy is a showpiece for Brendan Gleeson as a lowbrow cop happening upon an international drug conspiracy.  Gleeson is always very good and was especially memorable in director Martin McDonagh’s  2008 In Bruges, which was either the funniest hit man movie ever or the darkest and most violent buddy comedy ever.  This time, McDonagh’s brother John Michael McDonagh directs Gleeson as a very canny man who convincingly strives to appear much dumber than he is.   The perfect foil for Gleeson’s sloppy local cop is the refined FBI agent played by Don Cheadle.  Those familiar with Ireland will recognize the Connemara Coast.

 

The documentary Project Nim tells the extraordinary story of a chimpanzee that was taught a human language – American Sign Language.  In a remarkable and compelling journey, the chimp Nim is first placed as a baby with a human hippie family and then at a university-owned country estate and college laboratories.  Amazingly, he learns to use an ASL vocabulary – not just responding to commands, but initiating communication and forming sentences.  Then, the experiment ends, and he is off to an assortment of post-placements, some terrifying.

Along the way, we hear from the motley assortment of humans involved in his raising, his exploitation and his care. One human who enters the story as a grad student, Bob Ingersoll, emerges as the hero of the story.  It’s the story of a chimp, but we learn more about the foibles of humans.

Acclaimed documentarian James Marsh (Man on Wire) delivers another great story – one of the year’s best documentaries.

 

Buck is a documentary about real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, an exceedingly grounded and gentle man who knows everything about horse behavior.  But the movie is more about human behavior,  about the disturbing crucible that formed Buck, and about what we can learn about people from their handling of horses.

Fortunately, Director Cindy Meehl realized that she had a great story and got out of the way.  The understated guitar-based score never becomes melodramatic.  And Meehl never lets the admiring talking heads elevate Buck to more than what he is, which is remarkable enough.  This movie could have easily been painfully corny or pretentious and is neither.  I’d happily view it again today.

Buck’s own background is so nasty that it would totally unremarkable for him to have emerged mean or emotionally crippled – and he is the farthest from either.  With some help from loving people, Buck has chosen to become something different from his apparent fate.  In this way, Buck could be a companion piece to Mike Leigh’s Another Year.

 

In Tabloid, master documentarian Errol Morris delivers the hilarious story of Joyce McKinney, a beauty queen jailed for manacling a Mormon missionary as her sex slave.  McKinney doesn’t like the film, but she has no complaint because two-thirds of the film is her telling her story in her own words.  The humor derives from her being such a clearly unreliable narrator – “barking mad” in the colorfully accurate description of a British journalist.  Morris came across her story decades after the kidnapping, when she had her dead dog Booger cloned from “Spirit Booger” into a litter of Korean-named Boogers.

Morris’ last two films (Standard Operating Procedure about the Abu Ghraib abuses and The Fog of War) were as funny as a heart attack.  But remember that Morris’ earliest films (Gates of Heaven, Vernon Florida and Fast Cheap & Out of Control) also focused on eccentrics and were plenty funny.  Just for fun, this time Morris even leaves in some of his snarky wisecracks to the interviewees.

This is one of the funniest movies of the year and the funniest documentary since The Aristocrats.

 

The Adjustment Bureau is a first rate love story embedded in the action thriller genre. A couple meet by chance and are drawn together – only to have scary guys in hats try to enforce different destinies for them.

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have excellent chemistry, and the screenplay by director George Nolfi is smart and inventive.  Nolfi also wrote the smart and inventive screenplay for The Bourne Ultimatum.  I’m certainly looking forward to his next project.

The supporting players – Terence Stamp, Anthony Mackie and John Slattery – are excellent.

Given the scarcity of them these days, it must be pretty hard to write a smart and authentic romance.  So all the more credit to Nolfi, and to Damon and Blunt for pulling it off.

 

Carancho:  Well, they have ambulance chasers in Argentina, too, and that seamy world is the setting for this dark and violent noirish thriller.  Ricardo Darin (The Secrets of Their Eyes, Nine Queens) stars as a suspended lawyer running insurance scams.    (I think of Darin as the Argentine Joe Mantegna.)  Set in the gloom of urban nighttime emergency rooms and funeral homes, it’s a love story between the lawyer and an equally troubled doctor (Martina Gusman), nestled into a crime thriller.

The story is as cynical and dark as it comes.  The handheld camera keeps it out of the noir category, but the story is as hard-bitten as Kiss Me Deadly or any of the really nasty noirs. The violence is realistic, and there’s lots of it – I had never seen anyone beaten to death with a file drawer before.  If you like dark and edgy (and I do), this is the film for you.

 

Potiche, the delightful French farce of feminist self-discovery, is the funniest movie in over a year, and another showcase for Catherine Deneuve (as if she needs one).   DeNeuve plays a 1977 potiche, French for “trophy housewife”, married to a guy who is a male chauvinist pig both by choice and cluelessness.  He is also the meanest industrialist in France – Ebenezer Scrooge would be a softie next to this guy – and the workers in his factories are about to explode.  He becomes incapacitated, and she must run the factory.

Now, this is a familiar story line for gender comedy – why is it so damn funny?  It starts with the screenplay, which is smart and quick like the classic screwball comedy that American filmmakers don’t make anymore.  And the cast is filled with proven actors who play each comic situation with complete earnestness, no matter how absurd.

Director Francois Ozon, best known in the US for Swimming Pool and 8 Women, adapted the screenplay from a play and has a blast skewering late-70s gender roles and both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  Gerard Depardieu plays the Communist mayor, who is both the husband’s nemesis and the wife’s former fling.   Two of the very best French comic players, Fabrice Luchini and Karen Viard, shine in co-starring roles as the husband and his secretary.

 

 

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